Finding policy recommendations for Food/Water Safety,
Water for Food Security in an increasingly water stressed world

Margaret Catley-Carlson
UN Secretary General Advisory Board on Water


How should policy makers and those that advise them navigate the uncharted areas where food safety issues run up against the need to find ever more water for food, and for all of our other needs? What policy instruments are useful tools for resolving the various and increasing demands for water? What does current science offer us in terms of analysis and possible solutions?

The Institute on Science for Global Policy1 at the Lincoln Campus of the University of Nebraska invited close to 50 experts and policy specialists to work together in October 2013 for two days and one very long evening in to see if we could come to agreed policy recommendations on some highly contentious issues. We worked under Chatham House Rules which prevents distribution of the names, identities or views of the participants. It can be said however that there were many experts from Food Policy and Food Safety Research Institutes, as well as from Institutes of Agriculture, natural resource management, livestock, soil and crop specialists, microbiologists, biosystems engineers, epidemiologists and biologists, public health and public policy practitioners – and more. We came from public institutes, private sector companies, universities, international organizations – and from half a dozen countries.

The expertise around the table was primarily drawn from to US institutions, but there were several discussions very relevant to global water management practices, and on issues, eg potential new USA standards for water quality in food, which stand to have an impact on importers into the USA. These are the issues I will report on in this article.

The format was interesting. Three page highly focused papers were distributed some days before we met. Over the next two days, we listened to 5 minute lecture presentations from a dozen experts in 8 core areas, each followed by 90 minute lively and far reaching debate and discussions.

We had many more questions to each other than answers: must worldwide fracking be stopped as posing a hazard to agricultural and drinking water, or do we recognize that 10,000 fracking operations now take place in the USA and concentrate on measuring and quantifying deleterious effect wherever fracking is taking place? What incentives will change farmers’ water using behavior? Will the drought protection and salt water tolerance of GMO agriculture increase its acceptability? How should the need for stover and plant residues for animal feed be reconciled with conservation agriculture practices? Should farmers whose soil does not retain water have the right to use irrigation water? Who will provide technical assistance especially to small farmers for increasing new and complex water for food regulatory requirements? Will the search for food safety drive small farmers out? What new technologies increase irrigation efficiency? What safeguards are necessary to ensure food safety from potential pathogens in irrigation water? When waste water is used for irrigation? How can rain forecasting and actual rainfall monitoring be sufficiently improved to backstop crop insurance? Should farmers who don’t use improved irrigation still get irrigation water? Should we be looking at national water use laws, or look to regional and community entities to set regulation and use-laws appropriate to local conditions?

After the debates we went into four closed rooms and worked hard to see if we could discern areas of agreement where new policy direction would be timely and appropriate. Here is a précis of some of the consensus thoughts on water/food management: Readers can follow up in the relevant ISGP book contain the eight policy position papers debated at the respective conferences and the not-for-attribution summaries of the debates, as well as areas of consensus and next steps (see The results would be particularly useful to those lecturing on the elements of food/water policies, or those contributing to policy papers or policy formation in food/water safety or fee security issues.

Here is a précis of the consensus issues;

Such a brief summary clearly does not do justice to the richness and diversity of thought of three days discussion. It does however suggest that there are large communalities across the globe in terms of policy issues related to water management – and therefore great scope for careful work in looking at the tools developed in different regions to assess their local and regional applicability as we seek to manage water better in our own countries.


1The Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP) has pioneered the development of a new type of international forum based on a series of invitation-only conferences.  These ISGP conferences are designed to provide articulate, distinguished scientists and technologists opportunities to concisely present their views of the credible S&T options available for addressing major geopolitical and security issues.  Over a two-year-plus period, these ISGP conferences are convened on different aspects (e.g., surveillance. prevention, antimicrobial resistance, zoonosis) of a broad, overarching topic (e.g., Emerging and Persistent Infectious Diseases).